Are We Victims or Creators?

In light of the event of a number of individuals, at home and abroad, being absolved of taking another person’s life on the basis of ‘temporary insanity’, it appears to me that an essential question that needs consideration is a person a victim or a creator?

Certainly, to date, medicine, behavioural and cognitive psychology, psychiatry, psychoanalysis and educational psychology have considered the person to be a ‘victim of diseases’, ‘conditioned by his environment’, ‘at the mercy of biological or chemical imbalances’, ‘at the beck and call of his unconscious mind’ and ‘a victim of biological syndromes’ respectively.  As a result of these viewpoints what has been rolled out, particularly over the last l00 years, is a huge industry of ‘control’ therapies, drug therapies and interpretation therapies.  None of these approaches asks the person how he views his illness or depression or violence or learning difficulty.  No meaning is attached to any of the physical, psychological or social symptoms that the distressed individual manifests.  The person’s symptoms are treated as a random happening with no connection to his or her life story and the aim is to prescribe ways of reducing or eliminating the troubling and troublesome symptoms (with the exception of psychoanalysis, which, nevertheless, is prescriptive in its interpretation).  The person is rarely involved in the design of the therapeutic programme other than having to be convinced that he should do as he is told and take the medicine and treatment regime prescribed.  The questioning of healthcare professionals is usually not encouraged and is sometimes unsafe for the client.

What is often not appreciated is that the blaming of aggression, violence, murder, rape, depression, delusions, hallucinations and bi-polar depression on hypothetical biological conditions such as mental illness or the results of conditioning or inaccessible unconscious forces does nothing to empower the individuals afflicted.  On the contrary, it reinforces their victim status and offers no hope for the understanding and the resolution of their major life difficulties.  Neither does it offer any reassurance or safety to those who are under threat from what can be highly threatening behaviour.  Both the individual himself or herself and others remain at risk.

Certainly, psychoanalysis understands that the defensive actions are formed at a subconscious level (for good reasons, because it would be too unbearable and painful to consciously live with the devastating experience of harsh abandonment in early childhood).  However, what psychoanalysis has not appreciated is that whether or not defensive actions are formed at a subconscious or conscious level, these are created by the person himself or herself and, ultimately, each person is responsible for their actions.  The task of the professional helper is to bring the unresolved conflicts to consciousness so that the person can actively understand and take responsibility for the traumas they have experienced and the effects of their reactions on themselves and others. 

The greater the abandonment an individual experiences the more powerful are the subconscious defences created.  These creations are there to reduce further experiences of harsh rejection and to alert others who are in a position to see, hear and do, to see the sad realities of the troubled individual’s life.  These defensive creations can be of an ‘acting-out’ or an ‘acting-in’ nature.  Examples of the former are verbal aggression, physical violence, destructiveness of property, murder; examples of the latter are self-criticism, sacrificing oneself for the sake of others, self-harming, starving oneself, addictions to alcohol or drugs and suicide).

It never ceases to amaze me that when a country like the USA developed the most terrifying weapons of mass destruction and, ironically, blocks other countries developing such weapons and are the only country that has used such weapons, that the International Community did not label such behaviour as ‘temporary insanity’.  The reality is that as a society (a collective of individuals) America is like an individual who is deeply insecure and feels extremely threatened and becomes paranoid with regard to the adverse actions of other States.  America has gone from ‘Reds under the bed’ to ‘Arabs under the bed’ and something needs to happen for America to take responsibility for its vulnerability and consequent defensive creations.  If this is true for a country it is equally true for individuals who resort to terrifying defensive behaviours either towards themselves or others or both.  Everybody is under threat when human insecurities either at an individual or mass level are not resolved.  Telling people that they were ‘temporarily insane’ does nothing to further that maturing process.

Dr. Tony Humphreys practices clinical psychology and has written several books including The Power of ‘Negative’ Thinking.